Wednesday, January 19, 2011


This post is for people who have never read a James Lee Burke novel and for those who have read him, but not read Bitterroot.

Bitterroot, published in 2001, is set in western Montana, in and around the Bitterroot Valley. The time is contemporary (in one plot thread, Federal agents are investigating the Oklahoma City bombing). Most of the story is narrated by Billy Bob Holland, a former Texas Ranger, a former Assistant US Attorney, and now a Texas lawyer who goes to Montana to spend time with a friend, a former Navy Seal. Complications ensue.

The friend, a widower, has a teen-age daughter who, early in the book, is raped by three bikers. The bikers are then murdered one by one. Then the story becomes complicated. There are Federal agents; bikers; militia; corporate interests polluting the river with the cyanide used in gold mining; an young Indian woman, Sue Lynn Big Medicine, with whom Billy Bob's adult son becomes involved; an alcoholic, if very successful, mystery writer and his movie-star wife; a psychopathic rodeo clown; an Italian mobster who is trying to collect $700,000 from the widow of a murdered man; the local sheriff, and more.

One of the appeals of the book is watching Burke keep all these various threads clear and seeing them cross and affect one another. Another appeal is Billy Bob, a flawed man with a past. As a Texas Ranger he and his now-dead partner murdered Mexican drug mules; justifying the violence as serving the greater good. Now Billy Bob has a guilty conscience and a ghost who will not leave him alone and to whom he talks periodically throughout the book.

Yet another appeal is Burke's descriptions of the natural world: "The clouds were mauve-colored in the west and the rain blowing in the canyon at Alberton Gorge looked like spun glass against the light. I could smell the heavy, cold odor of the Clark Fork and the wetness of the boulders in the shadows along the banks and the hay that someone was mowing in a distant field. The riparian countryside, the purple haze on the mountains, the old-growth trees that were so tall they looked as if they lived in the sky, were probably as close to Eden as modern man ever got, I thought. But this wonderful part of the world was also one that Carl Hinkel [the leader of the local militia] and his friends, if given an opportunity, would turn into a separate country surrounded by razor wire and guard towers."

Because this a popular mystery, you know the bad guys will get their comeuppance and the good guys will be rewarded, but wondering how Burke is going to tie all the threads into a satisfying knot kept me reading when I should have been doing other things. A lot of fun.

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